The National Catholic Review
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It poured rain the entire day that Christmas in Georgia, but we never let it dampen our spirits. I was visiting close neighbors, Sam and Beth and their young son. The three of us had prepared a vegetarian feast of succulent grain dishes, vegetable medleys, fruits, nuts, goat cheese and breads, not to mention our own vintage wines and liqueurs (mine was blueberry), which we spread on a table set for nibbling and dining. My hosts kept the wood stove popping and the room cozy as we sat rocking on our chairs. We sang a little and played guitar, recorder and flute. Best of all, though, we read aloud for hours on end. We took turns on the long stories and passed several books around so each of us could select another. This was no typical act of reading to the children, though their toddling son had many books, and during breaks we set him on this or that adults lap and read directly to him. No, we read aloud for ourselves, for the sheer pleasure of it.

The books we read from were new to me. One of them, The Gifts of the Child Christ and Other Stories and Fairy Tales, by George MacDonald, a 19th-century writer of fantasy, I later purchased. Since then I have read aloud three of the stories at Christmastime: The Gifts of the Child Christ, Stephen Archer and the final biographical story, which the author intended to be read aloud and so made it brief, Birth, Dreaming, Death.

What I find appealing in these stories, which are not Catholic by the way (MacDonald had aspired to be a Protestant minister), is that MacDonald describes how people help each other to discover the Divine in their midst. The author believes in the power of love to heal broken spirits, reconcile ruptured relationships and give meaning, even to lives still deemed difficult in other respects. And MacDonald, often through a narrators voice, reveals much about how people grow into loving behaviors over time, yet, paradoxically, how even young children can display a wisdom that jolts adults into maturation. Phosy, a quiet, sober five-year-old in the title story, for example, brings her family together in its hour of desperation one Christmas through her developing religious sensibility.

MacDonalds tales, like Dickenss, are moralistic and reflect the class conflicts of his day. These traits combine to create humorous portraits, like that of Alice, the nursemaid in The Gifts of the Child Christ, who speaks to her employers of her work as domestic slavery, a philosophy she has obviously picked up elsewhere, and who gets her comeuppance, as well as her man, in the end.

In winter especially I gravitate toward 19th-century tales full of cold stormy nights, unexpected guests, waifs, burly menacing men, horses and other animals, characters poor in material wealth but rich in goodness, tales set in some huge dark house or inn where they gather. I also like the arduous journey motif. My tastes tend toward classics, like Dickenss A Christmas Carol and O. Henrys Gift of the Magi; but I also use collections and Christmas treasuries, which contain stories by Madeleine LEngle, Henry van Dyke, Pearl S. Buck and J. R. R. Tolkien. Christmas stories are available by Dylan Thomas, Anne Perry, Nora Roberts and even Truman Capote. And one can read favorite scenes from novels, like the Christmas tree-catching scene from Betty Smiths A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The point is to read aloud whatever the readers and listeners find satisfying.

Reading aloud invites participants to read publicly, imagine and listen actively, while it draws them together around shared texts, turns of phrases and common characters. And it works its magic even among nonreaders. One Advent my mother and sister visited me in New York. Since they had never come at Christmastime, I rushed the season with a blue spruce from L. L. Bean delivered to my apartment in Brooklyn. After we did city things, I booked us into a bed and breakfast in Cold Spring, a Hudson River hamlet a short train ride away. Our room had a wood stove that we lit each evening, and I brought stories to read aloud. I had never heard my mother read aloud before, but I enjoyed both her style of reading and her enthusiasm. My sister, after a second of shyness, also got into the swing of it and we made our evenings merry in a whole new way.

Id love to know which books and stories readers recommend for reading aloud, not only at Christmas, but all year long.

Karen Sue Smith is the editorial director of America.

Comments

N & T CHISHOLM | 12/19/2007 - 4:49pm
I am in the generation given birth by the likes of Elisabeth Wehner-Betty Smith. I recall my first generation Irish mother reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1943 during the war but I wasn't listening then. Years later, reading the book when my children were a captured audience I read them the Christmas Tree scene. Even now, I am swept away, eyes glistening, voice faltering, but I was not allowed to repeat the story at the table during subsequent Christmas seasons. It was too --different from their own lives. It provoked a sense of guilt and sadness they were not able to handle. We are victims of affluence now rather than poverty- B & B on the Hudson-more the rich girl Mary than Neeley and Francie in an increasingly secular country that can afford to conduct preemptive wars because the defense budget is just a small fraction of the GNP. And yes, we read aloud, have poetry readings every summer. Late for the Open Door Clinic board meeting last week, I entered dressed as Jacob Marley with clanking chain then read highlighted sentences from the First Stave. Marley was dead as a door nail! I was temped to give Scrooge a modern name. We broke bread together, toasted Dickens, one another then went to work like Bob Crachit. Thanks for this article and the story of your efforts to guide and protect a girl and her baby so unlike Christ and Mary. The tragedy was set in place, dysfunctional and inflexible, devoid of beauty when she was born. This comment is not meant for publication, merely gratitude for you and America. Peace be to you!

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